Back in April of 2013, Disney had excitedly announced at the annual CinemaCon expo that their plan was to release at least *eight* tentpole films every calendar year. This was when movie division chairman Alan Horn – pictured above – was relatively new to the studio. A veteran from Warner Bros.’ heyday, Horn was the answer to Disney’s problems in the early 2010s, problems that were caused by the previous movie chairman. This was also a few months after Disney’s big and world-shaking acquisition of Lucasfilm.
2013 had six big releases from the company, one of them was a huge bomb (The Lone Ranger), and another barely made it (Oz The Great and Powerful). Two smaller-scale productions – DisneyToon’s Planes and the live-action biodrama Saving Mr. Banks – made their budgets back. It was more or less 2012’s results, one massive bomb, and mostly successes. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World put together surpassed The Avengers‘ $1.5 billion gross, Frozen surprised like no other and brought home $1.2 billion, Monsters University collected a healthy amount.
As the years rolled on, however, it seemed like Disney wasn’t going to be able to score successes with every tentpole. Though not a big-scale film, Disney’s big loss in 2014 was Muppets Most Wanted. Coupling that with the fading of the first rebooted Muppets movie, Disney torpedoed the possibility of a third Muppets movie. Meanwhile, Maleficent made big money and then Disney announced a *ton* of live-action re-imaginings of the company’s iconic animated classics. Big Hero 6 continued Disney Animation’s current hit streak, both Marvel movies did their job.
2015 was when we started to see some more seams. Tomorrowland, a big blockbuster-sized original sci-fi adventure that took the name and some imagery from the section of Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, was a flop. Had it not cost anywhere near $190 million to make, perhaps its $209 million worldwide gross wouldn’t be seen as bad. It was also wedged between Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Pixar’s Inside Out, which were both huge successes. Later that year, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur opened mere weeks before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The dinosaur picture became Pixar’s first box office loss, while Star Wars inevitably blasted off into outer space.
Tomorrowland‘s marketing was decidedly cryptic, which confused a lot of people who apparently want things spelled out for them. It also wasn’t anywhere near as aggressive as what we were seeing for Age of Ultron and Inside Out. The Good Dinosaur was almost nonexistent, I heard so many people saying “Wait… There was another Pixar movie this year?! I didn’t know that!” Good Dinosaur cost over $175 million to make, and perhaps its $321 million worldwide gross would’ve been called great if it had cost $75 million to make. (The Angry Birds Movie cost around that amount and performed very similar to Good Dinosaur, not a flop.)
But why? A $190 million, Brad Bird-directed sci-fi adventure and a Pixar story about dinosaurs… Why dump those?
This year was even worse… The Finest Hours (cost $80 million), Alice Through the Looking Glass (cost $170 million), The BFG (cost $145 million), Pete’s Dragon (cost $65 million! $65 million!!), all flops.
Quality obviously is not the problem. Pete’s Dragon was praised out the wazoo, and audiences eat up movies that have the same Rotten Tomatoes scores as Alice Through the Looking Glass. I’m sure that’s not what the Disney marketing people are thinking either.
Do they not know how to properly advertise some movies? Or is it because… Perhaps they can’t handle so many tentpole movies at once?
Let’s picture a scenario where there’s no Marvel or Star Wars… Slots like mid-December (where Rogue One is being released), early November (Doctor Strange), and early May (Captain America: Civil War) are open and free for riskier things like The BFG and Pete’s Dragon. (Even though that’s a remake, it is kind of a risk considering the 1977 film’s presence.) Maybe Disney’s marketing department would be able to breathe between each movie and give them proper marketing?
Maybe they can juggle all of it, but they need the right people to do that. You can’t just put all the love into one, and dump the other. These are $120 million+ costing tentpoles we’re dealing with here. But maybe… Disney’s marketing department just doesn’t care and will only put their all into the acquisition/franchise stuff? But here’s a hole in that argument… The Good Dinosaur is a Pixar film. They tossed it aside and let it wither away. I bet you, if they really amped up the advertising on that one, it would’ve opened better and no one would’ve been worried about its performance. Quality is a moot point, Good Dinosaur could’ve indeed done well in a world full of middling animated hits like The Croods and Hotel Transylvania.
The fact that they let a Pixar film slide will always make me question them. Maybe Marvel and Lucasfilm will always be safe, maybe the marketing people will never not let any of their films tank… but what about Walt Disney Animation Studios? Until the release of Tangled, the old marketing guard didn’t do them any favors. Outside of the remakes, the live-action unit is often the one getting the short end of the stick.
Perhaps Disney is undeterred by these films going belly-up, and will continue to let them happen. Despite all the big non-remake live-action flops, you’re still hearing news left and right about A Wrinkle in Time (director Ava DuVernay was location scouting not too long ago), and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Jungle Cruise was also one of the movies that Disney reportedly wanted to release between 2017 and 2019. It seems like other non-remake live-action films are going to happen as well.
Maybe Disney’s just making floppy movies because they can, because they have 4-5 massive (and literally everything else) hits to buffer those losses. But here’s the hole… TRON 3. If they’re okay with other risky/unproven things bombing, then they could very well make TRON 3. But they canceled that after Tomorrowland flopped, so…
What’s their deal? What will be their game plan going forward?
If you ask me, they either need to get new marketing people that can handle 5+ tentpoles every calendar year, or seriously find ways to not let the budgets on these things balloon. We don’t want Disney to cease making certain kinds of movies…